The Women’s Institute of Management (WIM) is a story of vision, grit and determination, as epitomised by its two founders, Datuk Dr Nellie S. L. Tan-Wong and the late Tan Sri Napsiah Omar.
They set up the non-profit NGO, armed with not much more than a determination to help disadvantaged women acquire skills to start small businesses and earn a living.
They had no financial backing and started the NGO from scratch.
“We didn’t know each other, even though we are both from Negri Sembilan. We met at a workshop I had organised for women bankers.
“The late Tan Sri Napsiah just approached me and started talking about an idea she had of ‘doing something different for women’. Then she asked me to join her,” Dr Tan-Wong recounts.
Always up for a challenge, she didn’t need much persuading. The two women shared a vision to empower women, and they decided on an enabling approach when they set up WIM.
“We agreed right from the start that we shouldn’t give women financial aid because when a woman has surplus money, she’d always give it away to her children, family or relatives.
“Instead, we decided we’d give them vocational and business skills, and teach them how to set up a small business to make money,” shares Dr Tan-Wong.
Today, 25 years later, WIM has run more than 700 business training courses for over 33,000 women throughout the country, including single mothers, orang Asli women, women in prisons, estates and rural communities.
The organisation also built and owned their six-story building – Wisma WIM – in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, where they operate from. As they had no government funding, the two founders saw the building as a way to generate income, by renting out office space.
To commemorate WIM’s silver jubilee, Dr Tan-Wong has written a 430-page book, The WIM Story: Reaching for the Skies, which charts the organisation’s journey through the years.
“It’s a big book because I have a lot of stories to tell. It’s not because we want to show off. But we want to share, especially with other NGOs, that nothing is easy at the beginning but it is possible.
“The first few years was a struggle for us but when you have conviction (in what you are doing), you dare to take risks. We were not doing this for ourselves and was confident in our vision,” shares the retired chartered accountant and WIM CEO.
Dr Tan-Wong is proud of WIM’s many success stories and happy to share them, such as that of a woman prisoner who was inspired to change her life around after she had attended a WIM skills-building workshop in prison.
After she was released, she came to the WIM office to express her gratitude and shared how she’d joined Toastmasters to get the confidence to start her life anew.
Such stories are the fuel that drive WIM, shares its co-founder.
And it’s the reason she drives to KL from Seremban where she lives with her husband, every Wednesday, for the past 25 years, to do WIM work.
“WIM is run completely by volunteers and we don’t get paid or receive annual government funding. We pride ourselves on being independent and able to survive on our own steam,” she says.
A great source of pride for Dr Tan-Wong is that they have been able to run programmes for women from all states, including Sabah and Sarawak.
“The women are hungry for such programmes. When we ran programmes around the country and also in Sabah and Sarawak, we were nervous as we were not sure whether any woman would show up.
“But in every state, we had 150 to 200 women coming. They would come by bus, taxi, and some would walk or cycle for miles to come. Clearly, these women want to learn,” she says.
Another programme she is happy to talk about is the WIM Masters in Business Administration with the University of East London, which was incepted in 1996.
“MBA programmes at the time were only offered by Malaysian Institute of Management. Our local universities hadn’t even started running such programmes and we decided to take it up even though we had no experience running education programmes.
“The University of East London was looking for a partner and after doing a check on us to make sure we were credible and had no criminal record, they offered us their MBA programme,” she says.
From the handful of students it had at the beginning, almost 650 students have been through their programme to date. What makes the WIM MBA programme stand apart, she says, is its “feminine touch”.
She explains: “Our MBA programme has been very successful because we put in the feminine touch; we take care of our students. We don’t just take them in to earn money.
“We cater to their needs. We organise excursions and trips that will show them first-hand how other companies run their businesses. They also get to hear from the chief executives of the companies.
“We even organised a trip to the Parliament house for them and they got to witness a live session in the Dewan. And, during the coffee break, would you believe it, some MPs tried to pursue our students … to try and recruit them!”
Their success has also earned them credibility with international agencies like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)who has engaged WIM to run training programmes for them.
“One of the first projects for the UNFPA was a series of workshops on domestic violence. We had no experience in that area but we never turn down a challenge and so we did our research and came up with a manual for our workshops.
“We didn’t just speak to women but we also ran workshops for police personnel because we believed that we had to address all stakeholders. The police later asked if they could use our manual to train their entire police force on domestic violence,” she says with pride.
The WIM Story: Reaching for the Skies will be launched tomorrow at WIM’s 25th anniversary gala dinner. The book is also available at the WIM office. For more information, call 03-77250268/288.